Bicycle infrastructure and the fight against carbon dioxide emissions

If the US wants to get serious about combatting climate change it has to address its disproportionate emissions of carbon dioxide. Great leaps are being made in clean energy generation and tax credit programs are spurring the purchase of hybrid vehicles, and now major cities are increasingly turning to adding bicycle infrastructure as a way of not only reducing gridlock but also reducing emissions.

The world bank tracks carbon dioxide emissions in metric tons per capita and for the 2011-2015 period, and the United States ranks 11th in highest per capita emissions. The top ten? All small countries whose high per capita emission load adds very little to the net CO2 amount in the atmosphere (With the exception of two Caribbean islands and Luxemburg, the top ten are also all oil producing countries located in the middle east).

At this point in history the link between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change have been so convincingly made that the challenge when writing about it is not finding a paper to cite, but rather choosing a paper to cite. One easy way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is to get people bicycling. A study by the European Cyclists Federation cites figures that over a similar distance a single-passenger car will emit 229g of carbon per kilometer and a bicyclist will emit just 21. The war to fight climate change will not be won by adding bike lanes, but changing America’s culture towards being less reliant on personal vehicles and more conducive to bicycle commuting is a winnable battle.

The most recent edition of the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2012)  showed bicycle commuting had grown an amazing 60% over the decade since the 2000 census. However across the nation still only 0.6% of commuters bike. The ACS points to one city in particular that showed dramatic growth over that time period: Portland, Oregon which, at the time of the ACS had a bicycle commuting rate of 6.1%. The cities best current available numbers show that number increasing even further to an amazing 7.2% of commuters, or 4.32 times the national average.

What is most surprising about Portland’s large number of bicycle commuters is that it has no large-scale bicycle share systems, like DC Bike share or New York’s Citi bike. There is a bike share platform scheduled to open in Portland in July 2016, but it has not had any impact on the commuting numbers reported by the ACS. This suggests that, at least in Portland’s case, protected bike lanes, dedicated traffic signals and bicycle boxes at intersections are more important than availability of bikes. Simply providing a bike sharing service in a city without the infrastructure to support cyclists is not the solution.

It is not coincidental that Portland was the only large city in America given the rating being “platinum bicycle friendly” by the League of American Bicyclists. It was by investing in bicycling infrastructure that Portland was able to encourage eco-friendly commuting. The Portland city government outlines what they have done to make their city so bikeable: 17 miles of physically separated roadways, in conjunction with 350 miles of non-separated bike paths and lanes, and 19 intersections which feature designated bicycle boxes to raise visibility and bicycle-specific traffic signals. Cost is for these infrastructure updates are amazingly low, the estimated replacement value of the entire bicycling infrastructure of Portland is 60 million dollars, which is also the approximate replacement cost of just one mile of urban freeway.

It’s only by dedicating lanes, signals and modest amounts of money to cyclists that bicycle commuting becomes an attractive option for city commuters and America starts winning one battle in the war against carbon dioxide emissions.



Award Database. (2016). Retrieved April 13, 2016, from

Bicycles in Portland Fact Sheet. (2016) Retrieved April 12, 2016, from

Biking to Work Increases 60 Percent Over Last Decade. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2016, from

CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita). (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2016, from

NRC (2010). Advancing the Science of Climate Change . National Research Council. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA.

Walker, P. (2011). Cycle like the Danes to cut carbon emissions, says study. Retrieved April 13, 2016, from